Monday, November 18, 2013

If Attacked, How Would Iran Respond?

A report by the Iran Project published in late 2012 warned that “a U.S.
and/or Israeli preventive military action against Iran could...perhaps
contribut[e] to increased sectarian conflict and regional war.”
In March
2012, pundit Fareed Zakaria warned that an Israeli or American strike
against Iran could be “a path to another Middle East war.”
While other
experts have actually posited a more measured Iranian response, they
have not offered a systematic analysis of Iran’s strategic capabilities.
Iran could respond to an attack in two main arenas: against Israel,
or in the Persian Gulf against the United States and/or the Sunni Gulf
states, mainly Saudi Arabia. The common Western assessment, which
envisions a horror scenario of Iranian responses and consequent
developments, serves as an excellent deterrence tool for the Iranians by
undermining the threat of the military option and reducing the likelihood
that the regime in Tehran will agree to a diplomatic solution.
This paper challenges the commonly held Western view through a
systematic analysis of Iran’s capabilities and the possible range of Iranian
strategies to be used against Israel. The analysis complements studies
that have been conducted on the Iranian response in the Gulf,
and takes
into account the response capability of Iran’s ally Syria and that of Iran’s
Lebanese and Palestinian proxies. In addition, this paper makes four
policy recommendations to reduce the possibility of regional escalation,
which in any case is unlikely, considering the interests of the relevant
actors. The main conclusion is that the possibility of a strike against Iran
is a pivotal instrument of diplomacy. A measured but credible use of this
tool can help achieve the goals of the international campaign: to pressure
Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amos Yadlin is the Director of INSS. Avner Golov is the research
assistant to the Director of INSS.
Strategic Assessment
| Volume 16 | No. 3 | October 2013
Iran so that it agrees to concessions regarding its nuclear program, which
will ensure that it does not possess military nuclear capabilities, and to
reduce the likelihood of regional escalation.
The Iranian Military Response: Capabilities
An examination of Iran’s ability to inflict harm on Israel touches on
several levels, including the use of missiles, airpower, naval capabilities,
and terrorist activity.
An Iranian missile attack constitutes the main threat. Iran has two
types of missiles whose range allows them to strike targets in Israel:
Shehab 3 missiles, with a potential range of 1,300 kilometers, and Ghadir
missiles, with a range of over 1,600 kilometers.
Both missiles have
a low level of accuracy, which makes it impossible for them to strike a
pinpoint target: the CEP (circular error probability) of the Shehab is over
2 kilometers, and even with the Ghadir, the CEP radius is hundreds of
meters. Both missiles can carry a heavy warhead: 1 ton and 750 kilograms,
respectively. Iran has dozens of launchers and about 300 missiles of each
type threatening Israel.
Nevertheless, the experience of 1991 shows
that missiles with such problematic accuracy are not effective in hitting
specific Israeli targets, and that they are used as weapons of terror
against large cities, where the damage is also limited by the advanced
warning to the populace, the effectiveness of the Arrow system, and the
improvement in passive civilian defense. Addressing this resource, in
recent years the Iranians have released films documenting simultaneous
launches of multiple missiles from different launchers, with the goal of
saturating the Israeli missile defense system.
There are suspicions that the Iranians have the ability to arm their
missiles with biological and chemical warheads, even though Iran is a
signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the
possession and use of such weapons. However, because the missiles
have a low level of accuracy and this nonconventional weapon is not
effective in a missile attack, Iran’s limited capability in this area and its
leadership’s understanding that the use of chemical weapons would
damage Iran’s legitimacy and lead to a military response on an entirely
different level would likely actually prevent a nonconventional attack in
response to a conventional attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Another possible form of Iranian response to an attack is a terrorist
attack on Israeli and Jewish targets abroad. Over many years the Quds
Strategic Assessment
| Volume 16 | No. 3 | October 2013
Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards has developed the ability to
carry out terrorist attacks around the world. The attacks in Buenos Aires
in 1992 and 1994 against the Israeli embassy and the AMIA Jewish Center
have been attributed to the Revolutionary Guards. Both the wave of
attacks against Israeli diplomats in 2012 and the attempted assassination
of the Saudi ambassador to the United States were perpetrated by the
Various scholars have warned that the response to an attack on Iran
would also include attacks against Israeli and Western targets.
has already tried to carry out terrorist attacks in retaliation for attempts
to strike at its nuclear program through the Stuxnet virus cyber attack
and the January 2010 and July 2011 assassinations of Iranian nuclear
scientists. The failure of these attempts suggests that Iran has a limited
ability to carry out wide scale terrorist attacks, and that the Western world
has developed good abilities to thwart attacks since the terror attacks of
September 2001. Iran’s limited capabilities make it possible to contain its
capacity for retaliation through the use of terrorism.
Other threats include attacks though planes and drones, although
Iran’s ability on this level is highly limited. Iran suffers from clear
inferiority against the Israeli air force. Israel has two layers of aerial
defense against aircraft penetrating its airspace: interceptor aircraft
and anti-aircraft systems for aerial defense. The flight ranges of Iran’s
most advanced aircraft, the Sukhoi 24, make it impossible for them
to attack and return to Iran without refueling in the air, which makes
them vulnerable and open to air defense radar. The drones in Iran’s
possession do not appear very advanced compared to their Western
counterparts, and they do not have serious operational flexibility once
they are launched.
While the Iranians recently announced that they have
succeeded in developing a Shahed 129 drone that is capable of carrying
up to eight missiles with a range of 1,700 kilometers (which covers all of
Israel), various assessments in Israel indicate that the capabilities of the
drone have been exaggerated.
Yet even if t
he announcement is partially
it appears that
Israel h
appropriate response to this threat
relevant threat scenario is suicide drones b
from Lebanon or
Theoretically Iran has maritime capabilities that would enable
it to strike Israeli targets, but they are circumscribed. Iran has some
Soviet-made submarines that are not permanently stationed in the
Strategic Assessment
| Volume 16 | No. 3 | October 2013
Mediterranean and are mainly used in the Persian Gulf and the Indian
Their ability to embark on long missions without an escort
appears limited. While Iran has a number of vessels that are able to reach
Israel’s shores, they would have difficulty passing through the Gulf of
Suez during fighting, and ships sailing in the direction of Eilat would
encounter Israeli vessels with advanced sea-to-sea missiles. Given these
limitations, it would appear that the more relevant scenario is a naval
terrorist attack, either using anti-ship missiles fired from a ship disguised
as a civilian vessel or through the use of Iranian midget submarines
carried by a civilian vessel for suicide attacks. The Iranians have a number
of such submarines (the Ghadir), whose sailing range is very limited.
These submarines can carry a small number of soldiers and two torpedo
missiles. Therefore, even though there is a certain capacity to hit targets
in Israel, it is still a threat that Israel can meet. As for an attack using
ground forces, the Iranian ground threat is not a relevant consideration,
given the more than 1,200 kilometers between Iran and Israel.
Thus an interim summary of Iranian capabilities indicates that
Israel can successfully deal with Iranian responses to an attack. These
scenarios are far from large scale war, and their
impact would be primarily psychological. The
main Iranian military threat in the event of an
attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is the missile
threat, along with the threat of terrorist attacks
against military and civilian targets. The following
section examines Iran’s willingness to respond
using all its capabilities in the event that its nuclear
program is subject to a Western military strike.
Assessment of the Iranian Response Strategy
There are two significant parameters for assessing
an Iranian response. The first concerns the
identity of the attacker: is it an American attack, an
Israeli attack without US backing, or a combined
attack (American backing for an Israeli strike would almost certainly be
perceived as such a scenario by the regime in Tehran). The main Iranian
interest is in regime survival, and therefore the regime would consider
whether its response would enhance the threat against it. If the scope of
the first attack had already threatened the regime, there would be fewer
The main interest of the
ayatollahs is to preserve
their power. Thus, in
a scenario involving a
pinpoint strike on the
Iranian nuclear program,
the regime would seek to
respond without causing
escalation and signi!cant
American intervention in
the crisis.
Strategic Assessment
| Volume 16 | No. 3 | October 2013
inhibitions about a response. Thus with an Israeli strike, for example,
the danger is that an Iranian response would drag the United States
into involvement that would threaten the regime, while in an American
attack limited to nuclear targets, the concern is that a response would
lead to a counter-response that would threaten the regime. If in Tehran’s
assessment the United States had decided to use its full power in order
to topple the regime, this would reduce Iran’s inhibitions, and the
scope of the Iranian response could be expected to increase. If Tehran’s
assessment is that the United States is limiting its attack to Iran’s nuclear
infrastructure and that it is likely to broaden its attack against the regime
only in response to an Iranian response, the chances would increase of
Iran’s exercising restraint in order to avoid escalation that would threaten
the survival of the regime.
The second parameter concerns the nature of the attack. The greater
the force and scope of the Western strike – if it included economic assets
such as the oil and gas industry or government and military assets such
as government and religious buildings, headquarters, and strategic
military forces – the more pressure Tehran would face to respond with
significant force in order to deter its enemies from future strikes and
restore its honor. The two parameters are connected, since an American
response in the event of escalation would include a broader and more
powerful attack on regime assets as well. For this reason, it would be a
more credible and effective threat that would encourage Iranian restraint
in response to a Western attack.
Against this background a scale of five possible Iranian strategies can
be posited (from the limited and measured to the very massive):
a. Total military restraint: This is an extreme scenario in which the
Iranian regime chooses not to respond immediately after an attack on
its facilities. Two examples of this strategy are the lack of immediate
Iraqi response following the Israel Air Force attack on the Osirak
nuclear reactor in 1981, and the absence of a Syrian response to the
attack on the Deir ez-Zor nuclear reactor in 2007.
However, there is
little likelihood of Iran adopting such a strategy. In contrast to Iraq and
Syria, Iran is aware that the West knows about its nuclear program,
and an attack would not be a strategic surprise. Even if the timing
and nature of the attack are a surprise, Tehran has likely prepared a
response in the event of a strike. Tehran would presumably decide
to use this plan, even if it were partial and restrained, to show th
strength of the regime, deter Iran’s enemies from additional actions
in the future, and restore the country’s honor after the attack on its
nuclear project. In other words, there is a high level of certainty that
there would be an Iranian response, and the question is about its
b. Tit for tat:
This is the classic reactive strategy because it mimics
the strategy of the attacker. Iran’s response to a strike against the
country’s nuclear facilities would be an attack on Israel’s nuclear
facilities. In this scenario, a significant number of missiles would
be launched from Iran and Lebanon in the direction of Dimona or
any other target in Israel perceived as “nuclear associated,” in order
to convey a message of parity between Iran and Israel, and perhaps
even to damage Israel’s facilities. There is a high likelihood that this
method of operation would be chosen, independently or as part of a
broader Iranian response.
c. A response that is limited in scope but more significant: A broader
Iranian response would include the use of terrorist cells and a
restrained launch of missiles – one or two missiles volleys at Israel’s
cities, and perhaps also Saudi and Western targets in the Gulf. Suicide
missions from the air and the sea are also possible in this limited
response scenario. If the Western strike damages Iran’s nuclear
infrastructure but does not harm other regime assets, there is a high
likelihood of such an Iranian response, because the regime in Tehran
will seek to balance the need to respond to an attack with the fear of
escalation that would threaten regime assets not directly connected
to Iran’s military nuclear program. Again, the main interest of the
regime of the ayatollahs is to preserve their power. Therefore, it seems
that they would not carry out an action that is perceived as likely to
threaten the stability of the regime. Thus, in a scenario involving a
pinpoint strike on the Iranian nuclear program, the regime would
seek to respond without causing escalation and significant American
intervention in the crisis.
d. The maximalist response against Israeli targets: Despite what has
been noted thus far, it is possible that Iran would seek an aggressive,
maximalist response to a strike against its military nuclear project and
its national honor, while attempting to isolate Israel from the United
States. It could launch dozens of missiles a day against Israeli cities in
a number of volleys spread throughout the day. 

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